Just ahead of International Women’s Day, George Washington University’s Global Gender Program convened a panel discussion on gender equality in military operations. “What Works? Promoting Gender Equality and the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 in Military Operations” took place 25 February 2015, bringing together a distinguished group of experts that included Dr. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat (President, Women in International Security), Commandant Jayne Lawlor (Gender, Equality, and Diversity Officer, Irish Defense Forces), Charlotte Isaaksson (Gender Advisor, Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe), Brenda Oppermann (Human Rights Subject Matter Expert), and Dr. Robert Egnell (Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University) for a discussion moderated by George Washington University Professor Dr. Aisling Swaine.

This year will mark the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace, and Security, which affirms the critical roles of women in conflict and in rebuilding societies post-conflict. While the passage of UNSCR 1325 remains a watershed moment in incorporating women’s rights into national security, as Swaine noted, “we still have a long way to go in actually making progress in implementation…and one of the biggest areas where we see gaps are within militaries themselves.”

The Importance of Gender in Military Operations

In her opening remarks, Dr. de Jonge Oudraat identified a key question: Why should we talk about gender in military operations? She recalled that in 2000, when UNSCR 1325 was adapted, many of the peace agreements brokered by the UN were falling apart after just three or four years. There was a great deal of pressure from women’s groups to be at the peace table, which, at that point, “forgot about half the population.” Further, Dr. de Jonge Oudraat explained that this marked the era when the very nature of conflicts was changing, from wars between states to wars within them, drawing attention to the notion of human security.

Dr. Egnell echoed these statements, commenting that Women, Peace, and Security issues are both intrinsically important and necessary to increase military effectiveness. Comdt. Lawlor referred to her experience with the Irish Defense Forces as she explained that some elements of gender awareness were already present in the planning and execution of operations. For instance, it was common knowledge to have female soldiers instead of male soldiers search women, when necessary. Oppermann agreed and offered her perspective from working on these issues with the U.S. military. She noted that military officials realized the necessity of considering local women in the planning of raids. The challenge across the board, however, was identifying such practices as gender awareness and moving beyond these basic applications. A common theme in the discussion was the difficulty of departing from tradition and adopting new procedures and perspectives.

Practical Strategies for Incorporating a Gender Perspective into Military Operations

Though difficult, progress has been made on efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into military operations across the globe. In the Irish military, Comdt. Lawlor created an action plan, or, as she put it, “an idiot’s guide for implementing a gender perspective for soldiers.” She explained that this was an effort to infuse gender awareness training at multiple levels, from career courses to planning operations. Her efforts also included appointments of gender focal points at each level “so that at every stage, no matter what’s going on, someone there is thinking about gender,” and distributing information about local NGOs and civil society organizations poised to serve as further resources.

Isaaksson spoke of similar strategies in her experience at NATO. She emphasized the importance of “treating gender as a task” – outlining strategic and operational objectives as well as defining measures of effectiveness. She underscored that “we want to do gender as we do everything else – fully integrated, not something on the side or parallel.” Isaaksson noted, “I’d argue that [NATO has] been successful on the gender mainstreaming side” and that its approach was “very much about institutionalization.”

Oppermann described a more challenging context from her experience with U.S. Military operations in Afghanistan. She described gender as “not part of the military lexicon.” Oppermann emphasized that incorporating gender perspectives in the U.S. Military is “all about relationship-building.” She detailed steps forward on the ground in Afghanistan, including developing a gender annex as part of a regional order, which she called “a big win,” and female engagement team (FET) trainings. However, the panelists agreed that the U.S. has a long way to go on mainstreaming gender into operations as an institution.

Points of Entry and Points of Resistance

Each speaker emphasized the vital nature of entry points within the institution to produce real and sustainable change. Regarding whether bringing gender perspectives to military is a top-down or bottom-up process, Dr. Egnell argued, “if we want change, we have to affect it from both sides.” Indeed, Comdt. Lawlor highlighted that her institutional action plan gained traction when the IDF Chief of Staff signed onto it. This reiterated Egnell’s point that the way to mainstream gender is through developing incentives to support these issues. Therefore, the system through which one makes gains in salary and promotions has to reflect this perspective.

The discussion pointed to a main challenge in implementing a gender perspective in militaries: resistance to change. The panelists agreed that tradition proved to be a significant block to making progress on gender perspectives. Dr. de Jonge Oudraat affirmed that introducing a gender perspective is a highly political choice as “it is about the distribution of power in society, and people don’t give that up very easily.”

Dr. Swaine closed the discussion by thanking the panelists for sharing their experiences in implementing UNSCR 1325 in militaries, for including remarks both practical and strategic, and discussing points of entry and points of resistance. She emphasized the importance of taking what we know about weaving gender perspectives into military institutions and operations, and ensuring that it is translated into the armed contexts we facing today – contexts in which terrorism and non-state violence are growing threats.